The True Test of Free Speech

Ideas can't thrive where voices are muzzled.

March/April 2003

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The True Test of Free Speech

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

The word university derives from a Latin term that essentially means “combined into one.” This centuries-old notion that many disciplines come together to form a whole is still at the center of how we understand the mission and life of Stanford and other great universities.

I believe that this combining within the university goes beyond a mixing of disciplines. A university is also a mingling of scholars, experts and novices, from different backgrounds and with different values. It is a blending of scholarly approaches, experimental and theoretical. A university often hosts a rainbow of viewpoints on the most topical issues of the day.

One goal of this amalgamation is to encourage all members of the community to think creatively and rigorously and to use the interplay of scholarly commentary to sharpen their insights. The exchange of contending and supporting ideas generated by insightful and engaged minds makes the position of university president one of the most interesting jobs in the world.

The combination of intelligent, creative people and contentious issues can also be a volatile mix in any community, and perhaps especially so in a tightly knit intellectual community. It is very much in keeping with Jane and Leland Stanford’s original vision of the University that such issues would be part of the academic conversation. But what happens when the debate inspired by these issues is accompanied by passionate beliefs and widely divergent points of view?

This year, in particular, the question has proved to be far more than hypothetical. Since students returned in September, a host of political and social issues have emerged, many of them affecting Stanford: the conflict in Israel and the occupied territories, the prospect of war with Iraq, terrorism and civil liberties, and affirmative action, to name a few. While the debates around some of these issues bring out the best thinking in people, they also engender strong feelings that can make civil intellectual exchange difficult.

In fall quarter, for example, two speakers with disparate perspectives on world events addressed the Stanford community during the same week. The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, MS ’79, spoke to a capacity audience at Memorial Auditorium. A few days later, poet and activist Amiri Baraka spoke before a group at Kresge Auditorium. Without comparing or equating these men, I can say they both elicited strong support from some and criticism from others. In the week prior to their speeches, there had been heated debate about their respective opinions and experiences, as well as whether each individual “deserved” to speak at Stanford.

In advance of the speakers’ arrival, I wrote a letter to the Stanford community to reaffirm the principle of open, diverse and mutually respectful dialogue, especially on the controversial and difficult issues facing our nation and our world. My letter drew from the memorial service for Stanford’s renowned constitutional scholar Gerald Gunther, held just a few weeks earlier. At that service, President Emeritus Gerhard Casper recalled some of Professor Gunther’s most powerful words. “University campuses,” Gunther wrote, “should exhibit greater, not less, freedom of expression than prevails in society at large. . . .”

In my letter, I recalled Professor Gunther’s words and reminded all members of the community of the importance of civil dialogue and freedom of expression, no matter how strongly they might disagree with a speaker. The speeches of Mr. Barak and Mr. Baraka brought us face to face with the often-repeated insight about free speech: defending the right of others to speak freely is easy when you agree with them, but the true test of the principle comes when it requires defending the rights of those espousing ideas directly in conflict with your own beliefs.

The commitment to free and open speech runs deep at Stanford and is conveyed in the University’s motto, “The wind of freedom blows.” I am proud to say that both speakers were heard without interruption that week, and I was equally proud of the insightful and provocative questions posed to the speakers by Stanford students. The interactions between speakers and intelligent questioners demonstrated that civil dialogue does not inhibit the exploration of controversial issues or the ability of a questioner to challenge a speaker’s views. Instead, an open and civil debate encourages thoughtful and illuminating interchange.

I sincerely believe that the challenging issues we face in the coming months will provide an opportunity for the Stanford community to show our fellow citizens that important and contentious questions can be addressed in a way that embraces the best values of free speech and academic freedom in a democratic society.

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